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Range of GhostsRange of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So the draw here is entirely the worldbuilding, to my eye. And it is good worldbuilding; Bear didn’t just say ‘hey, I want to write heroic fantasy about them easterners instead of another damn western European retread,’ she actually thought it through. This is not worldbuilding that relies on exoticized stereotypes. This stuff makes sense, right down to the nutritional advice given to a woman who has just lost her fertility (eat soybeans, which is exactly the advice that would come out of a doctor in this culture, given its real world cognates, and, not for nothing, which is also actually pretty good advice). Tangent.

But otherwise . . . meh. It’s such straight-faced heroic fantasy, and you know when the magical pony shows up and I find it annoying, a book has failed to work on me. I have no desire to read two more books of giant evil birds and sorcerers and weird visions and endless, endless, endless horse travel, mostly because if the entire main cast was slaughtered, I probably wouldn't blink.

Some of you guys will find the worldbuilding far and away worth the price of admission, though.

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UndertowUndertow by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Crunchy SF about the mining exploitation of a planet with a population of amphibious aliens, and corporate wrongdoing, and people who can alter probability with their minds, and redemption, and time forks.

To be fair, this book had the misfortune to intersect my life during a deeply frustrating snowed-in interlude, some bad travel, and today a – let’s just call it the aftermath of New Year’s and leave it at that. So not good context.

But still, meh. There’s a lot of stunt writing here – completely nongendered alien point-of-view, a climax of collapsing and expanding alternate realities – and it all just rubbed me as trying too goddamn hard. And everything else fell a little flat. Like I’d be reading along, and I’d think, ah, okay, these are background details alpha and beta that are supposed to lend depth to this supporting character. More of the same feeling that the book spent way too much time trying to be a thing and not actually being it.

Also, it didn’t magically cure my hangover, so I’m taking a star off for that.

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A Companion to Wolves A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oh good, I am no longer seethingly annoyed by the mere presence of Elizabeth Bear’s name. Time does fade all things, including deeply enraging internet behavior. And this book is far less indulgent than the last few things of hers I read.

Nota bien: “Indulgent” is a book review sneaky code word for “interested in things I don’t care about, as opposed to things I do.”

This is a book about a young Viking…ish man who is taken from his family’s home and bonded with an empathic wolf, and then they fight monsters and there’s lots of wolf mating/dubiously consensual empathic gay gangbang shenanigans. So as advertised, then.

Ha, okay. This book does the extremely difficult thing of critiquing and problematizing companion animal fantasies, particularly the sex, while also being a really satisfying companion animal fantasy. This book made me want to go back and reread large swaths of Pern because it is getting right to the heart of *gestures* that thing, except I know Pern would just be particularly painful now. This is a book written in a deceptively simple style, telling a story, and doing some nice – if not incredibly deep – work on subjects/objects and duty and sex and gender.

Actually, I should mention my one overarching critique, which is that it’s one of those books about gender where it’s all about masculine assumption of feminine roles without actually being about, um, any women at all. You know what I mean.

But my main point is that I was reading along, mildly interested, whatever, and then suddenly after the halfway point I was all, “but, but. Who will be his wolfy consorts? Tell me more!”

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Sequel to Blood and Iron. Seven years after the dragon spread her wings over New York, assorted faeries, angels, devils, and mostly humans are, well, being told in a story again.

Huh, okay, this is damn peculiar. I like bits of this book a whole hell of a lot: there are a few dozen beats and lines that made me laugh or kicked me right in the chest. And there's angel genderfuckery. And there is the phrase "metatextual polycreationism." And it's dedicated to [ profile] buymeaclue (the internet really is freaking tiny sometimes).

So there were little bits that just sang. But as a whole body? . . . no, not so much. And I don't really know why, either. Best guess: that annoying way the characters have of staring right into the camera all the time, even though it's stylistically fitting and one of the refrains – how these people have existence merely out of the power of story itself – ordains it. And also that the whole thing grows out of a particular soil of myth I'm really unfamiliar with, and the book didn't . . . get me through that, if you know what I mean. I was pulling for it, too. And it really should have, is what's annoying -- let's pause to note most decent fantasy novels do a fair bit of flexing to sell you on unfamiliar myth.

A good book for me. Probably a great book for someone out there who isn't me, but I'm having trouble thinking who that actually might be.
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Sebastien de Ulloa is a vampire with a millennium and change to his name, a habit of caring about his food, and the desire to build a new life across the Atlantic in the colonies. Detective Crown Inspector Lady Abigail Irene Garrett is a forensic sorceress who has exiled herself from London for reasons that do not need exploring at this juncture. Together, they solve crime.

Oh, now, this? This I like.

Clever, tense, satisfying mosaic novel. It feels like the best of Bear’s writing: prose like perfectly toned musculature, and lacking the sometimes annoying self-consciousness of Blood and Iron. The alternate history turn of the twentieth century, where the imperial powers still grip the colonies and magic is science, is evocative and rich. It got me from the start with “Lucifugous.” I mean, it’s basically Murder on the Orient Express in a zeppelin, with a vampire. How can you not love that? And the stories layer up one by one, adding revolutionary politics, ill-considered love affairs, and always murder.

I could quibble that the mysteries are too obvious, but the mysteries really aren’t the point. It’s about the world, the interplay of people, the gentle tug of theme. My real complaint is the frankly shocking copyediting -- I spotted several dozen typos, and that was without looking. Not to mention other glaring errors, like a line of dialogue assigned to a character who wasn’t even there. Woops.

Stil fantastic, though.
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The powers of faerie are fighting a losing war with the iron powers of humans. This generation’s Merlin has been found, and both the faerie Seeker and mage Matthew of the human Prometheus Club must try to win her loyalty for their side. But this time it’s more than just the Merlin – a dragon prince is coming, a man in the mold of Arthur and Vlad Dracula, who will pay the mother dragon in blood as he is destined to do.

This is a really excellent book. It divides its time between the eerie realms of faerie and the sometimes eerier glitter of New York, and manages to underpin them both with the same old old stories. The writing is a pleasure in and of itself – poised and precise, but also rich and simultaneously quirky.

“We’re fucked,” Seeker confirmed. “Welcome to fairy tales. Have a nice day. Canapé?”

And it is soothing to this chafed and tired reader to see the variously queer and colored characters going about their business (though really, it all seems much smaller when you’re dealing with different species, which I suppose is part of the point). And it’s all wrapped around a core of those same old stories, so that Arthur and Morgan and many of the rest are both legends and breathing people, and so that the misty present is layered cross-wise over the bloody past. Because all the really good stories are just retelling themselves off the old pattern, you know, and the really interesting thing is to see how this particular set of poor bastards protagonists rework it in their own image.

I have complaints (I wouldn’t be me, otherwise) and they’re of the particularly plaintive sort when you really like the book and wish it hadn’t made you flinch and twitch here and there. Firstly, some of the layering was irritatingly obscure, and I say that as someone who is very comfortable and conversant in the relevant myths. The . . . top story, I suppose you could call it, does operate well on its own, but I was distracted and frustrated by chasing down allusions sometimes. The book could have been way more accessible without sacrificing an iota of grace or atmosphere.

Second, though I enjoyed the writing, it slipped occasionally into painful self-consciousness. See the line quoted above in context, actually. Not frequently, and not agonizingly, but it sort of shouts at you from prose otherwise so smooth and effortless.

And lastly, this idea of faerie as the reality arising from stories constantly retold could have been far more developed, for my sensibilities. I kept looking for it in the major seams of the story, and then catching a glimpse of it as a bit of edge trimming. There were other themes that I appreciated, but this one kept tugging at me and telling me that it was important, and then not being important.

Perhaps in another book. Which apparently there will be. The prospect delights me, I’m happy to say.

Complex, thoughtful, well-peopled, strange. Oh, and happily recommended.


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